Mile High Eating

Posted on February 1, 2008 by Aun

It feels like a year since I last posted. I really do have to apologize for not posting something sooner. After visiting Alila Cha-Am, I returned home for one night and then took off for China for a frantic and way too busy two week work trip. We (a colleague and I) started in Shanghai, then went to Nanjing, Guilin (and Yangshuo) and Beijing, before returning to Shanghai for just one night.

As mentioned, the trip was a bit of a blur. Not only were we exhausted by the end of each day, we were also freezing. If you’ve been following the news, you’ll know that China has been hit by one of the coldest winters in years. Parts of the country have, quite frankly, been crippled by the uncommonly fierce weather. We were there on behalf of a client, sussing out and staying in the country’s coolest boutique hotels, and meeting with the properties’ owners or general managers. And while many of these places are stunning — and I would gladly book a room in several of them in the Spring or Fall — quite a few just weren’t equipped to deal with the current weather conditions, which made the trip less than ideal (icy cold bathrooms suck).

We did eat pretty well. The best meal I had was at a cool Japanese restaurant in Shanghai called (I think) Tenya. My good buddy Jereme Leung and a food writer friend of his brought me there. It’s a small place run, I’m told, by Japanese tuna importers. The set menu is fantastic value. For RMB250, you get a sampling of various kinds of toro (including o-toro and chu-toro), followed by a plate of giant crab legs. After this, you enjoy a hotpot with more tuna, some smaller crab legs, and loads of fresh vegetables. Once you’ve devoured most of these things, the staff then bring you udon to dump into the soup. To end the meal, you get a small but filling bowl of negitoro-don. The meal was so good that I ended up bringing my colleague back there on our last night in China. The restaurant’s card is entirely in Chinese, which I can’t read. So too is its website, which you can find here. The restaurant I went to is the one featured at the top of the web page. The manager does speak English, so feel free to call the number listed and make a reservation and ask for directions.

On another night, we were hosted to dinner by an old family friend. One of his other guests was a retired airlines executive. At one point during our meal, the conversation — partly because of this guest — centered on airline meals. I don’t know about you, but I have yet to meet (or eat) an airline meal that has really impressed me. Most of the times, the main course is barely edible and everything else is not even worth touching. Some airlines do serve ice cream, which is always a nice treat, but I’ve noticed that this is becoming less and less common.

I simply don’t understand why airlines can’t serve good, simple meals to passengers (and I’m speaking about us folks who fly cattle class most of the time). I appreciate (1) the need to manage food costs; (2) that the dishes served need to be refrigerated and then served either cold or reheated; and (3) the combinations chosen need to appeal to as wide a demographic audience as possible.

One of the problems that was discussed at the dinner was that some airlines try too hard. In a constant need to try and one-up the competition, airlines are appointing guest celebrity chefs to create newer and more exciting dining options. Open an airline menu and you might see names like Gordon Ramsay, Neil Perry and Alfred Portale peeking out at you. But honestly, the way I look at it — and I don’t think I am alone — the very last thing I want to eat when I’m spending anywhere from 6 to 12 hours stuck in the air is pretentious restaurant food. There are times when I want to be wowed by a chef. There are times when I like to be challenged by my food. But when I’m sitting in a cramped and uncomfortable seat, stuck next to some smelly guy whose arm keeps floating over the armrest, with a passenger in front of me who has decided to spend the entire flight with his seat pushed as far back as it can go, then I all I really want to eat is something simple, comforting and ideally palatable. At the end of the day, my belief is that airlines should treat their customers the way that Remy treated Anton Ego in Ratatouille, i.e. give them something classic, something simple, and something that will make them happy.

The other thing I don’t quite fathom is why airlines will try to serve dishes that logically don’t reheat well. Why oh why would you serve a chicken breast filet or a piece of fish when we all know that the darned things will become overcooked in the reheating process? On a recent flight, I tried the burger from the children’s menu (I was flying business class for once). It was dry and tough. And pretty darned disgusting. It’s like no one with any culinary sense is in charge of creating the menus for most airlines these days.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been on seven different planes from 3 different airlines. And boy was I served some interesting things. These flights, and so many others in the past, have inspired me to put together my own airline meal, i.e. what I wish I could be served on my next flight. I’ve numbered the items in the picture at the top of the post, so from top left and working clockwise: (1) UCC dark roast Espresso — I’d much rather have this than the crap coffee served in cheap plastic cups that create spills at the first sign of turbulence; (2) Kirin Melon Cream Soda; (3) The Laughing Cow Cheese Dippers — perfect for hanging onto and snacking on while watching a movie later; (4) Satsuraku Coffee Jelly, served with a cream syrup; (5) Chicken a la King served with steamed rice — perfect comfort food that reheats beautifully; and Potato Salad a la Harumi Kurihara.

Chicken a la King
adapted from a recipe from Gourmet magazine

1 3/4 cups chicken broth (14 fl oz)
1 1/2 lb boneless chicken thigh, cubed
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 each yellow, red, bell peppers, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
salt, or to taste
black pepper, to taste
1 large onion, diced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1/4 lb white mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
3 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon paprika (not hot)
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Steamed rice

Marinate the chicken pieces with some sea salt for at least an hour before cooking.

Put broth in a large heavy saucepan and bring just to a simmer over moderate heat. Place chicken in and gently poach for about 5 minutes or until just cooked.

Transfer chicken to a bowl. Set aside. Reserve broth for the sauce.

Heat 2 tablespoons butter in the large saucepan over moderately high heat until it foams, then cook peppers, stirring, until slightly soft, 5 minutes or so. Add a little salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the peppers into the same bowl as the chicken.

Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter and when foaming, toss in the onions. Cook at moderate heat until soft. Add a little salt to taste. Add flour, reduce heat to low, then cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Whisk in 1 cup broth, then all of the cream and mushrooms. Simmer until mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes. Add more broth if you feel the sauce is too thick.

Add the peppers and chicken into the sauce and let heat through for 5 minutes or so.

Whisk together yolks, lemon juice, and paprika in a small bowl. Whisk in 1/4 cup of the sauce, then stir this yolk mixture back into saucepan. Cook over low heat until sauce is slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon chicken à la king over rice, then sprinkle with parsley.

About Aun Koh

Aun has always loved food and travel, passions passed down to him from his parents. This foundation, plus a background in media, pushed him to start Chubby Hubby in 2005. He loves that this site allows him to write about the things he adores--food, style, travel, his wife and his bouncing baby boy!

What Others Are Saying

  1. HT February 2, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Have no fear – there is a covert posse of airline meal watchdogs in the air, and they all contribute photos like yours to this obsessive, CBL-yet-strangely-compelling website http://www.airlinemeals.net
    Check out their Meals of the Week archive – guess which carrier is leading the polls?
    I would like to stress that it was my cousin who told me about this – HE contributes.
    I don’t… really, I don’t.

  2. jean February 2, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    I think the only time I had a really nice meal was the flight from HK to Tok but that was way back in 99.

    and thank you for reminding me to pack a can of the UCC coffee for an upcoming flight :)

    ps: potato salad a la harumi is yummy

  3. katiatokyo February 2, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    It’s kinda interesting to find some Japanese stuffs in your ideal menu :) I read news article about airline meals rate the other day, saying that Singapore Airline is ranked as the best.

  4. AppetiteforChina February 3, 2008 at 12:11 am

    If you think icy cold bathrooms in boutique hotels are bad, try icy cold bathrooms on overcrowded trains. :) (I was stuck in Hunan on a train for 24 hours last week in the middle of a storm. Ick.)
    I’m guessing you had insane delays at the airport too?

  5. Kate February 3, 2008 at 7:42 am

    best airline food i’ve ever eaten: a local costa rican airline (partnering with american airlines) fed us coconut “welcome cakes,” like little, tender, chilled macaroons. we tried to get the recipe!

    worst: air france’s pate de foie gras. i kid you not. i think my mother was actually ill afterwards.

    air france redeemed themselves somewhat with nutella snack & drink – nutella, bread sticks for dipping, and peach iced tea, all in that adorable little cylinder…the best!

  6. wl February 4, 2008 at 3:22 am

    you’re right, my meal at tenya (or tianjia, in chinese) at that exact same branch (you’d be surprised that everyone swears by this hard-to-locate branch than venture to its other locations) marks my best japanese food experience I’ve had in shanghai so far. it’s not cheap compared to the plethora of choices around, but definitely worth every single cent of it.

  7. Pete February 4, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    I agree with your comments on airlines & their strange choice of inflight meals. Why can’t they stick to “comfort foods” which keep & heat-up well, e.g. stews, Mac & cheese, curries? My most memorable airline meal was chicken briyani on SQ from Bali to Singapore. And that was back in 1991!

  8. The Culinary Chase February 4, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    My husband travels every week, sometime business & sometimes economy………the food varies from being ok to not so ok. You’d think the food would be good in business all the time but such is not the case. Oh well, continue giving our feedback to the airline industry & hope that something sticks! :)

  9. mothball February 5, 2008 at 11:02 am

    travelled Sin-BKK in late dec, SQ. the food on the SIN-BKK leg was awful – rubber eggs it left a bad taste in my mouth. but the BKK-SIN was decently good, tasty stirfried chicken, i wiped it clean.. The food quality also depends on the airline caterer and obviously SATS doesnt make an effort anymore.

  10. Morsels of Memory February 5, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    The curtain separating the first class from the “cattle” class is actually used by airlines to prevent riots during mealtimes. Apparently, would-be terrorists only fly “cattle” class, thus only plastic cutlery is allowed in this class for obvious reasons. But what if such terrorists catch the sound of metal cutlery on porcelain plates−coming from the first class? Fear not, flight attendants stand ready to deter anyone who dares to cross the curtain…

  11. Sorina February 5, 2008 at 8:05 pm

    This is just beautiful. Awesome Post!

  12. Kian February 6, 2008 at 1:39 am

    Who ever came up with the idea of serving Cup-o-noodle on trans-pacific flights should be shot! We who fly cattle class have had to endure chemical broth of freeze dried noodles and peas have had it. We’re not going to stand for it anymore!!!!

  13. alexandra February 15, 2008 at 11:03 am

    your version of an airline meal looks wonderful…they should serve stews or curries that tastes even more wonderful once heated and reheated…at least you’d have tender meat in a wonderful sauce…I usually don’t eat on airlines…I stick to to the bun and butter…sometimes the cut fruit depending on how they look…

  14. Asha February 17, 2008 at 1:11 am

    I ate my most memorable airline meal way back in 1987 in Australia. I had the best meat pie ever on Quantas airlines!

  15. whiffandasip April 23, 2008 at 11:07 am

    Stumbled across your blog. Absolutely love it.
    …Best grilled pork belly I had was on a SQ flight from MNL-SG coach.
    And yes, I agree. Don’t ever order fish when your thousands of miles above!

  16. Huey February 8, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    I’ve gone around the supermarkets in HK looking for the UCC Espresso and Kirin Melon Cream Soda and haven’t been able to find them…. Are they easily available in Singapore?
    Btw, the kosher meal on SQ flights is actually decent. Salmon and potatoes which were actually moist and nicely flavored.

  17. Li River Cruise September 29, 2009 at 10:10 am

    I had an even worse version: we booked on Spring Airline, they don’t offer any food at all! And fight attendant are yelling to sell food!

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